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Deciding if Your Animal Shelter is Ready for Volunteers

By Betsy McFarland
From Volunteer Management for Animal Care Organizations (free PDF), The Humane Society of the United States, 2006

… Whether you already have volunteers involved or you're just getting started, it's important to determine how prepared your organization is for volunteers who are ready to give their time and talents.

Volunteers can be wonderful assets to your organization. They can work within and beyond your shelter's walls—raising needed funds, providing administrative support, fostering animals, counseling adopters, and socializing animals. They can also be a vital link between your organization and the community you serve. As ambassadors for your organization, they reach a lot of people in the community—their family, friends, co-workers, and others. However, volunteers are not simply free help; they require an investment of valuable staff time. The success of your volunteer program relies on a strong foundation. You will need to establish boundaries within which your volunteers can operate and develop a decision-making chain of command. Thoughtful, strong leadership and a system that helps volunteers support the organization—not control it—are critical. Adding volunteers to a disorganized or problem-ridden sheltering operation will only serve to make things worse. You risk doing damage to your programs and your organization’s reputation if you bring in volunteers before you’re ready to work with them.

This prospect shouldn’t deter you from using volunteers, but it should serve as a reminder to proceed thoughtfully and take a critical look at how your organization operates. Be sure to clean your house before you invite in the guests by conducting a self-evaluation to determine your organization’s stability. Use the following checklist to help you determine how ready your organization is for volunteers.

  • Do you have good staff retention rates? If not, why are staff leaving? Are staff members frustrated by a lack of support? Are internal politics causing a rift?
  • Have you covered the basics? Do you have an efficient cage-cleaning process and sound disease-control protocols or are you struggling with basic sanitation issues and constant illness outbreaks in the shelter? Unless basic operations are in order, adding volunteers is bound to make matters worse—
    volunteers will no doubt spread the word in the community that the shelter is not run well, thereby damaging your reputation. Make sure you are operating efficiently and effectively so that you can welcome volunteers and bring them into the fold.
  • Do you have written standard operating procedures (SOPs) that both staff and volunteers adhere to? (Even the smallest operation benefits from written SOPs. The HSUS offers a free template of SOPs that can be modified to fit any sheltering operation.)….
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